Judge William Lee used to be an angry punk.
In Tibet, everything that is old
Those who have a romanticized notion of Tibet as a land of spiritual enlightenment may be in for a rude awakening with the documentary Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet. Swiss filmmaker Luc Schaedler gives us a ground-level view of the country and its people in a film that is part road movie, part history lesson. Considering the rich insight Schaedler has to share, it is disappointing that the film is somewhat cold and less than engaging. It often feels like a dry lecture complemented by a tourist's video camera perspective.
The film begins rather jarringly with an English-accented voice-over explaining how difficult it has been for the speaker to enter Tibet. The first-person narration immediately puts a personal focus on the story, but it takes a while to establish whose story we're following. There are two people driving the narrative of the film: Gendun Choephel (1903-1951) and Luc Shaedler. A legendary figure in Tibet, Choephel was a promising young monk who became a fierce critic of his country's religious conservatism, cultural isolationism and reactionary government. Intelligent and free-spirited, he traveled throughout Tibet and India in order to discover his country's history. His outspoken nature got him in trouble and he was eventually imprisoned. Schaedler, born in 1963, has repeatedly come across Choephel in his study of Tibet. It is Schaedler's story that we're following—the translated narration read by Phil Hayes—as he retraces Choephel's journey across Tibet. However, Schaedler never appears on camera to reinforce his presence in a story that is partly framed as his personal journey.
The documentary footage lifts the veil off the mystique of Tibet to reveal ordinary people going about their daily lives. We also see plenty of monks in the various monasteries visited. There is a moment when we witness a very animated debate between monks but their deliberate body language, like many rituals we glimpse in the film, is left unexplained. Interspersed with the filmmakers' road movie is archival film footage and photographs used to illustrate the life and times of Choephel. Talking head interviews allow scholars, historians and friends to shed light on the personality of the errant monk. Among his written works are a political history of Tibet and a translation of the Kama Sutra.
The narration tells us that Choephel is a symbol of hope and an inspiration in contemporary Tibet but we don't really see it in the video of ordinary citizens. It is striking, however, what an impact the Chinese occupiers have had on life, as portraits of Chairman Mao are everywhere. Clearly, Choephel lived against the mainstream and his story is unique. Unfortunately, his story is told in a dry manner that seems to speak to a viewer already familiar with the subject rather than a general audience. It doesn't help that his story is broken up by long stretches of the road movie footage that begins to feel like filler material before long.
The filmmakers were nervous about being tossed out by the authorities for filming without permission. Their solution was to conduct themselves as tourists and likely the interviews were arranged with much secrecy. Consequently, the footage of people in public, while it's a relief from the exoticism that forms the stereotypical image of Tibet, isn't very interesting aside from its inherent value of showing a different culture.
The new video footage is passable in quality while the archival material varies from scratchy film to distorted recordings of television broadcasts. The DVD presentation is substandard with the picture delivered in non-anamorphic, letterboxed widescreen. The adequate audio track has clear and understandable dialogue, which is a relief since only the non-English speakers are accompanied by non-optional subtitles. Several text screens provide the director's bio and an interview. Gendun Choephel's written works are also excerpted.
Good information on the political and cultural history of Tibet is contained in Angry Monk, but viewers will need to be patient. The film can be an eye-opener on the real contemporary Tibet, even if we're kept at a tourist's distance from the citizens' lives.
I'm leaning toward a guilty verdict but I may reconsider after some meditation.
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